Michael Phelps’ return to swimming during the Olympics was majestic. Tall and lean, he stood on the blocks of his first race and the first question that was asked was, “What are those round bruises on his body?”
As it turns out, they were marks from an ancient Chinese medicinal practice called therapeutic cupping. This practice, long a favorite of physical therapists, is suddenly finding new traction thanks to Phelps and his fellow Olympic teammates.
What is Cupping?
Anciently, cupping was used to draw out poison from bites or infection from wounds. Hollow horns were boiled in water or fire was lit inside to draw out the air and create suction. The horn was then applied to the skin and the vacuum that was created drew out undesirable substances. Over thousands of years, the clinical implications of the practice spread to include muscle relaxation and recovery for those who have been injured, experience chronic pain, or undergo severe muscular stress (like swimmers).
Today, glass, plastic, or silicone cups are typically applied to the skin using an adjustable valve to create suction. The negative pressure inside of the cups stretch the fascia, or connective tissue, as well as the muscle itself, providing relief from pain. The bruises that were so often seen in the Olympics are caused when new blood floods the target area and old blood is drawn to the surface. These hickey-like bruises are rarely painful, but are a symbol of oxygen-rich blood flooding the area, causing inflammation.
Does It Work?
Intentionally causing inflammation seems counter-intuitive to those who are familiar with the icing routine common in physical therapy. In reality, cupping causes something called, “sterile inflammation”. The vacuum-like suction from the cups causes micro-trauma to the area over which it is applied. This allows the body to deploy an army of chemicals, fibroblasts, and white blood cells to the affected area to begin the healing process.
While there is anecdotal evidence that cupping is an effective therapy for relieving pain and speeding the healing process, a 2011 study concluded that cupping is not only an effective method of pain relief, but has virtually no side effects associated with it. In conjunction with physical therapy, this can be another successful treatment for those looking for non-drug and/or non-surgical ways to manage pain associated with injury.
Bottom line, cupping is a safe and effective way to speed healing, manage pain, and possibly win a gold medal.